Chapter 3: The Flaws of Representation

In chapter 3, I describe 2 flaws of representation:
1) Arbitrary Groupings, Arbitrary Goals
2) Choice of Representation

In this chapter, I will describe 2 main flaws in how ethnicity and ethnic representation is discussed. By the end of the chapter, I hope you can start to see why progress in promoting ethnic equality is slow, and may be illusive.

Flaw 1) Arbitrary Groupings, Arbitrary Goals

Let’s say we take upon the “measurement is gold” mantra, we still have to face the problem that we are constantly moving the goal post of equity, as number of “groups” are ever increased (& prescribed), such that progress is hard to track or make sense of. In the UK, the terms we used to describe minoritised ethnic groups have been changing – people of colour, BME, BAME… And now “It is time we drop BAME” in the Sewell Report. The widening trend and the abandonment of an over-arching term to describe all non-White British people reflects a changing demographic in the UK, and a changing public discourse to use better terms to describe people’s identity. The question lies: Who decides how other’s describe their identity? For what purpose are we classifying these categorically different identities?

The terms we use to describe race and ethnicity is unique to where we are. It is often defined by the dominant groups (e.g., White British). More inclusive terms emerge when minorities were given a larger voice. But these emerging terms do not change the fact that these terms are created by and for the dominant group, and that their group membership do not solely depend on their identity, but depend on the dominant group’s perception. A quick example, people of middle eastern heritage, who speaks perfect English and has pale skin colour is treated vastly different before and after 911. In the UK, from the last 30 years of census, some people groups reported changing ethnic identity, but the ever-stable ethnic identification is White British. Terminology cares less to differentiate Black Caribbean from Black African, but really cares about differentiate “them” from “us”. It is foreseeable that a similar story will unfold, creating more terms and groups to capture “other” groups and “mixed” groups in the UK.

The pattern is clear, ideology is always chasing after the reality: we only care enough to change when there are visibly large enough groups in society that we need to “update our terms”, but not our mentality. In this way, top-down representation or classification into existing categories will forever lag behind, as the UK continues to diversify, as new categories are being created and the goal post of representation will never be attained.

ONS (2003) describes ethnicity as “self-defined and subjectively meaningful to an individual.” Flaw 1 shows the problem of the operationalisation of such measure, that choosing an identity from a limited number of choices that closest resembles our identity, is not truly self-defined, subjective, nor meaningful.

Photo by cottonbro studio on

Flaw 2) Choice of representation

We do not choose which country we are born, we do not choose our skin colour. As a migrant minority in the UK, similarly, you have no choice but to represent your visibly perceived ethnicity. Representation starts not when you pronounced membership of the ethnic group, it begins “whenever you step into that space” (Quote from Chineke! Ep4. The Anxiety of Representation). During the pandemic, whenever I step on the tube, I can just hide my Asian-looking masked face to get a free 1-metre quarantine zone, no matter how crowded it is. Every Asian looking person became Wuhan, Chinese. Chineseness is dumb down to a simple dimension of fear.

Perceived membership is not always a good indication of subjective identity. Let’s look at another example. Some migrants from Hong Kong (Hong Kongers) yearned to differentiate themselves from being called “Chinese”. There is an ongoing, traceable, consensual process within the Hong Konger community to build and define Hong Kongness, but this difference is often not respected by Chinese and the wider popuation. This highlights the dynamic nature of ethnic identities, and that visible representation is not sufficient a marker to denote group membership. This varying nature of ethnic identities is not unique in migrant populations. To oppose same-sex marriage in Hong Kong, a lot of conservative politicians claim that it is in Chinese culture and tradition to uphold a heterosexual, monogamy marriage. However, as Marco Wan illustrated in his paper, the traditional Chinese marriage was never monogamous. Chineseness was influenced by (western) modernity in their own invention of their marriage “tradition”. Within people groups of the same ethnic origin, with shared language and nationality, their notion of ethnic identity and what it entails can differ. The attempt of using top-down categories and language to restrict how ethnic identity can vary limits our ability to truly allow people to choose how to express their own.

Non-dominant groups do not have the choice to be un-represented, the “Single Outlier” explanation is never accepted for non-dominant groups. The “Bad Apple” excuse is too often used, and accepted, when say e.g., a White man has breached the law. This is another way of explaining why the “unconscious biases” remains pertinent in the UK, the dominant group rejects any potentially negative connotation linked with their White British ethnicity, but are too quick to label and stick with stereotypes they assign on minoritized groups. The dominant group has to power to choose to be un-represented. “I’m not like those White men.” Can non-dominant groups do the same? Look at the disproportionate rates of stop and search in young black men, the colonial spirit lives on, the same spirit that separated families, enslaved cultures, and maintained the hierarchical caste of social class within the UK. Minoritised groups can’t help but feel like their every step is watched, and that they will forever be the other. The reliance on appearance representation amplifies the power imbalances between groups.

The direct implication of the reliance of appearance representation is the risk of under-representing the rights of the less populated/less vocal “sub-groups” within the same ethnic category umbrella term. The indirect consequence is that it creates an illusion of progress (which can be infinitely perpetuated by keep on moving the goal posts), when the underlying resource allocation system does not change, that people from non-dominant groups are still viewed as lesser.


Author: joseph lam

On a Part-Time PhD Journey. Reflection on living Academia into a better place. 🇭🇰 Migrant in 🇬🇧

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